It’s hard for me to reconcile that you might not recognize the famous name F. W. Woolworth, but after testing this on some 20somethings in our family, I realize that younger people are in a different galaxy from an ancient like me.
For example, their cars. Younger people cannot recall the days when windows opened and closed by sheer man- (or woman-) power. Those windows had to be cranked open, and it wasn’t always easy. And all that sweat was never cooled by the car’s central air-conditioning, which didn’t exist. Can you just imagine?
Our Newark neighbor, Willie, father of my oldest friend, Marty, had a fancy new 1947 Lincoln, which, among other features, had power windows, years before they became standard in all cars. I know everyone on our block remembers the winter when that fancy vehicle’s windows got stuck in the down position. That happened to be the same year as the huge blizzard, supposedly the mightiest since 1888. I can’t remember if the snow was falling when the windows weren’t. Took a while to fix, too. Most dealers and auto repair shops had no how to make that marvelous invention marvelous again.
I also come from the generation that preceded automatic transmissions and electric turn signals. So you’d struggle to open the window and stick your pointer finger out to indicate a left turn. And I learned from my father that it really wasn’t necessary to tell the drivers behind you or opposite you what you planned to do next. None of their business! Especially when it was cold outside, opening the window was a pain with little gain.
It wasn’t only cars. Our kitchens were primitive. We didn’t know from sous vide or air fryers. We certainly never had matching dishwashers, one for meat and one for dairy. And one for pareve, yet! We didn’t have dishwashers at all. We didn’t have clothes dryers or robotic vacuums. We didn’t have microwaves either. But we did have pressure cookers, which filled Mom with so much fear of explosions that she hardly ever used hers. How did we ever manage? Of course, if you worked at Woolworth’s for $.60 an hour, you wouldn’t have been able to afford to buy any of those items anyway, even if they had existed.
Woolworth’s was the location of my very first job. It was called a 5 and 10, although nothing really cost 5 or even 10 cents. The one where I worked had a prominent location on Newark’s Broad Street, near the corner of Market Street. To know that it is gone and that young people never even heard its name is like telling them that the old movie theaters showed two feature films, a newsreel, and a cartoon, plus what we called coming attractions, now known as previews. Most viewers never looked at the schedule. You just walked in and caught up. There was that oft-spoken phrase, “Is this where we came in?” Didn’t seem to hurt us, though. Today, it always depends on the schedule. If the movie starts at 7 p.m. you are seated, popcorn ready, at 6:55.
Woolworth’s was one of several large stores in downtown Newark, but it was never a rigorously denominational place and never a traditional department store. Jews from our Weequahic community were regular shoppers there, as were representatives of the many other ethnicities of Newark. Woolworth’s was heterogeneous, but it was not a department store at all. Different parameters. If you were looking for a men’s suit or fancy women’s dress, you would not shop for them at Woolworth’s.
There were several department stores downtown. There was Kresge’s, for example, with its WASPish feel, shared by Hahnes, which was a tad more pricey, but just as WASPy. The stores that were favored by our tribe were coincidentally all founded by Jews — Bamberger’s, Orbach’s, and the deeply discounted S. Klein on the Square, with its amazing $8 racks. Even then, $8 was cheap. None of those retail giants, including Woolworth’s, survives until this day, although Bamberger’s metamorphosed into Macy’s, albeit no longer in Newark.
In order to work at Woolworth’s you had to be 16 and in possession of working papers. Proudly meeting those very minimal requirements, I got a job. Lucky me!
What was Woolworth’s anyway? There is not really anything like it today. The store sold a huge mix of merchandise and always featured a popular food service counter. You could buy just about anything that fit into a bag. Notions? Yup. Fabric? A nightmare for me, but indeed yes. Cosmetics? Of course. Shoelaces? Certainly. Underwear, pajamas, socks and stockings, modestly priced children’s clothing, toys, notebooks and pencils, and much more; in other words, a vast array of inexpensive goods that formed a category known as variety.
But unlike Target or Walmart or a Dollar store, Woolworth’s had little enclosed counters, each one equipped with a salesperson (i.e. me) and a cash register. If someone wanted to buy a tube of lipstick the salesperson would help them to find the right shade, collect the payment, ring up the sale, and bag it. Credit cards were unheard of. Cash was not only king, it was the only thing. Self-service was non-existent.
Cosmetics was a very busy counter, so when I first worked there I had a partner, another 16-year-old girl, definitely not from Weequahic. It was problematic for me, since she was a mean tough girl, and I was actually afraid of her. I requested a transfer to another department. That request was granted but turned into a real nightmare. They sent me to fabrics.
This was the absolute worst department for me. I had never ever handled cloth that wasn’t already made into a towel or a dress or some other recognizable article. It was true I had taken the mandatory sewing class at Weequahic (for girls only!) but I was a total loser in that subject, where we made silly items like lingerie cases. What I didn’t know about fabric was legion. I didn’t know how to fold it, measure it, cut it, or recognize it; I couldn’t differentiate cotton from nylon, linen from wool. Yet, the customers assumed I was a 16-year-old expert, even asking for my totally useless opinions.
Unlike in cosmetics, where people, usually teenagers, pretty much knew what they wanted, in fabrics every purchase was very customized to the patterns that we also sold. My biggest nightmare was selling a pattern and following it up with the fabric.
Fabrics was not normally a particularly crowded department, so I manned the counter alone, in a job for which I was imminently unsuited and totally incompetent. It got me in the end, which happened to be quite close to the beginning.
One day, I failed the Woolworth test. We always knew that so-called shoppers would stop by our counters incognito, and try to entrap us in some way. And one thing Woolworth was very strict with was counting out the change. It had to be done meticulously. You did not merely hand the customer the right amount of change. You had to count it out. Or else.
I was in the midst of a transaction, atypically busy and frazzled by multiple customers, each demanding my attention simultaneously, when one woman who had me measure several yards of fabric abruptly changed her mind. I had to refold the fabric by stretching my arms out wide and doing a maneuver that I cannot to this day actually do very competently. Another customer was buying something small, and in my utter and complete distraction, I frantically gave her penny change without doing the cursed counting.
That night, at the conclusion of my shift, for which my total compensation for the previous week was $3.33 with deductions, I went to pick up my pay from Rosemary, the not-very-nice lady, a real witch actually, who dispensed the payroll money.
She gave me two envelopes. I refused the second, telling her that I was entitled only to one. She held firm. I recall the nasty, malevolent words that she finally uttered, “Dear, you’ve been fired. The shopper reports you didn’t count out the change.”
That ended my career in retail! Lucky for me.
Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!